I played a lot of videogames growing up, across many systems. My first system was the Commodore 64, onto which I actually programmed some of my own videogames. There were a few games on there that I thought I was really good at, based on playing friends of mine. But we had a paper boy 1not the videogame Paper Boy, an actual paper boy who also had the same games on his Commodore 64 and he whooped my ass at every single one. As I grew up, I’d play games at the arcade. If you’ve ever seen the original Tron where Flynn kicked ass at an arcade for a crowd of people and thought “this is bullshit, no one gave that much of a fuck about arcade games” — you’d be wrong. Arcades in the 70s and 80s (and even into the early-mid 90s) were hot spots, and there were lines for the best games and people would actively cheer for you if you had a good game. I was young, and not nearly as good as whomever wandered into the arcade on whatever day I thought would be “my time to shine”.
Throughout my life, this is a pretty constant theme : some people who aren’t very good at something will think I’m good at that thing, and then I get self-assured and think “hey, maybe they’re right” and then I dive into a pool of actually good-at-that-thing people and I realize “oh. I suck at this thing”. I’ve heard that about sports (but only in my youth), web design, programming, videogames, comedy, writing, and a few smaller things I wouldn’t even purport to be good at doing.
While videogames-as-sport (and as a legitimate way to make money by simply playing them) wasn’t really “a thing” when I was young, this story is actually about 3 short stories where I tried to compete professionally and failed miserably.
Story 1 : The NES World Championships
In 1990, Nintendo held a world championship videogame competition across the United States. Much like the World Series of baseball, it wasn’t so much “world” as “just the United States”. Luckily for me, one of the 29 cities across the country that they picked was Phoenix, AZ. At the time, there was this big Nintendo store at my local mall — PV Mall — that was an open floorplan, almost like a kiosk. They had NES systems setup with the latest games, and later SNES and Gameboy 2and for a very short time Virtual Boy consoles on the ready for customers to play at their leisure.
While I can’t find any press that explains where in Phoenix the competition was held, I’m pretty certain it was at Phoenix’s biggest mall : The Metro Center. That’s the mall where Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was filmed, it was the only mall in Arizona with an ice skating rink, and it later became the largest gaming arcade in the country (which took the place of the aforementioned ice skating rink). The PV Mall Nintendo store was “Round 1” of the NES championship. They told us that “whoever wins this gets to the State Finals”. That was true, in a sense, since there was only one competition in our state.
The competition (I’ve looked up to verify) was a timed 6 mins, 21 second event wherein you had to :
- Gather 50 coins in Super Mario Bros
- Finish a race in Rad Racer
- Play the remainder of your time in Tetris
You were awarded “competition” points in each round and they tallied the total at the end. Your points in SMB were exactly as they stood : 1-for-1. Your points in Rad Racer were multiplied by 10, and your points in Tetris were multiplied by 25. As it turned out (and was explained on this page), the smart bet was to exploit some easter eggs in SMB (the old turtle trick in 3-2, but repeating your jump instead of getting the 1-up bonuses — or to intentionally die just after the first coin block in World 1-1 since you’d re-spawn right next to it a few seconds later), complete Rad Racer as fast as possible and then fuck around in Tetris as much as you had time left. Very few, if any, competitors knew these easter eggs — since the games were modified from their originals anyway — but competitions back then weren’t exactly well-organized. The genius of the competition was that people, myself included, focused on the “25x points” of Tetris, forgetting how many points one could rack up in SMB, and forgetting how difficult it is to score massive points in Tetris in a short period of time.
Because I didn’t even have an NES until late 1990, when my friend gave me his old one upon receiving a SNES for his birthday present, I’d only played SMB and Tetris but never Rad Racer. I lost the regional finals by about 50,000 points. While that sounds like a lot, the difference between first place and last place was about 400,000 points vs 270,000 points. I lost, but I was probably in 2nd or 3rd place.
Story 2 : Blockbuster World Videogame Championships
This one was particularly strange. Googling around about it shows almost nothing but personal anecdotes about it 3I’ve also only seemed to have found people talking about the Blockbuster World Videogame Championship II — I’m referring to the ...continue, so it’s hard for me to determine the ruleset officially vs my memory of the events. It seemed at the time, and how it appears looking back on it, to be heavily weighted to gamers whose parents had an upper-scale income and the free time to visit a Blockbuster and rent whatever their little shit-heel of a kid wanted.
This competition was cross-platform : you picked the platform of your choice, and that was the system you played with. There were only two platforms to choose from : SNES or Genesis. If your parents had bought into the hype of TurboGrafx 16, Sega CD, NeoGeo, Atari Jaguar, or anything on a PC system… well, you were shit out of luck. Furthermore, Blockbuster was the de-facto videogame rental facility in almost every town in the U.S. (if not the world), so this was partially a promo for them. The first week’s game was a surprise — in my case, it was the 7-up Dot game 4which, for the record, was surprisingly good. Much like the amusement of the Pizza Hut Yo !Noid game had been on the NES, but they told you about the next week’s game the week prior. All of the games were relatively recent and popular anyway, making renting the game already kind of difficult, but now that there was actual prize money on the line it made renting said games a fucking nightmare. The only way to practice the games would be to either buy them out-right (hah!), or to rent them — from, you guessed it, Blockbuster — which would require someone who had no better place to be on a weekday than at Blockbuster. Hence why this competition was filled with rich white kids with stay-at-home moms.
I did relatively well in that first week, because I’d actually rented the Spot game in the past. The following week was a game I couldn’t make my mom leave her teaching job to rent for me, so I did terribly, and the 3rd week was much the same. I didn’t get past that initial round, much like the NES competition, and much like this next mini-story.
Story 3 : Mortal Kombat Championships
My final, brief, story is about Mortal Kombat. This was while MK was still in the arcade. I was told there would be a national MK championship, but I can’t currently find any information about it online (maybe due to the fact that MK is, itself, labeled a “tournament” in the game’s own lore). This championship’s first round was held at my local pizza shop, which made it easy to ride my bike to, and kinda the whole reason I even bothered to enter — given my previous failures at videogame competitions.
The rules were pretty simple : no physically touching your opponent (not your on-screen opponent, but literally the person standing next to you on the machine), and no “cheese”. In the MK world, circa the first MK, “cheese” pretty much applied to repeatedly foot-sweeping your opponent multiple times, or exploiting bugs in the game for which there was no defense. For the purposes of this event, they said “any more than 3 sweeps is cheese”, at which point the player was punished (or disqualified if it was a pattern).
In my first round, playing as Scorpion, I beat my opponent pretty easily. It was almost a Flawless Victory (in the parlance of MK). During the 2nd round, he was at about 50% health and I was at about 75% health. He got me into a corner and high-punched me a few times, until the game would let me block, and then he sweeped me. 6 times. I thought he’d stop at 3 — at most — or be caught by the judge, but none of the above happened. I turned to the judge between the 2nd and 3rd round and said “did you see that?” and he just said “yeah, good fight”, which made me realize he wasn’t even watching.
In the 3rd round, my opponent — full of the hubris of knowing the judge wasn’t watching — started the match with a series of low sweeps. I said “JUDGE!” and the judge turned as he swept me the 3rd time. The judge said “okay… break!”, which made us jump back to our corners. As that happened, some dude (who I later discovered was a friend of the dude I was playing against) started chatting up the judge, asking him questions about the competition, making jokes with him, that kind of thing. I was getting ahead of my opponent — he was at about 30% health, I was at about 60% health — and thought I might have this one in the bag. I made the crucial mistake of throwing Scorpion’s spear as he was in the air, and he made the wise decision to use an air high punch. The air high punch, at that time, would injure a player but wouldn’t knock them down, so you could land while they were stunned and follow-up. That’s when he hit me with an uppercut, sending me into the corner, jumped towards me with a high kick (which, in a corner, just sends the opponent into the air) and just keep sweeping my legs afterwards. I yelled out “DUDE! DUDE! DUUUUDE!”, trying to get the judge’s attention, but the judge must’ve thought I was yelling at my opponent, until I finally nudged him with my elbow in a “stop being a dick” gesture, which of course the judge saw, and said “NO CONTACT!”, distracting him from seeing my opponent pull of a 7th sweep in the corner in a row.
I lost with less dignity than the other competitions, but I was outnumbered and I had no evidence. Don’t get me wrong : I definitely would’ve gotten my ass kicked if I’d made it to the next bracket against a better opponent. I wasn’t anywhere near good enough to compete. I was just upset I didn’t get to be amazed by a better player, but instead was cheated and swindled out of it.
My roommate and I went halfsies on MKX (Mortal Kombat 10) a few weeks ago, and it’s been a blast to play. He, and other friends of mine, seem to think I have some unfair advantage because “you know computers!“. but I still lose a fair amount of times. They’ve even, perhaps facetiously, remarked that I should focus on becoming a videogame athlete.
I still love videogames, and — though I’m not nearly as active as I once was — I can level up in games pretty easily, and pretty quickly. I’m absolutely no savant or master at such things. And that applies to all levels of competition since I’ve dropped sports. I’m a solid comedian, and if you saw my first DVD (or bought it on iTunes) or saw me live in person, you might think “this guy’s pretty good” but I’d fuck up a comedy competition before I finished the first show, guaranteed.
When it comes to competitions of any kind, I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll just stick to being “good enough” unless someone who’s better than me says otherwise.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↩||not the videogame Paper Boy, an actual paper boy|
|2.||↩||and for a very short time Virtual Boy|
|3.||↩||I’ve also only seemed to have found people talking about the Blockbuster World Videogame Championship II — I’m referring to the first one, about which no one seems to have any information|
|4.||↩||which, for the record, was surprisingly good. Much like the amusement of the Pizza Hut Yo !Noid game had been on the NES|